Shortly after I moved to Chicago’s far north side, I came home to a sign warning me of gangs of African American kids in white T-shirts and black do-rags who had recently been throwing rocks and bricks at random passersby. This apparently was happening in broad daylight and in busy areas of the half square mile or so around my building. I was skeptical, but I was also scared.
“Gangs are real,” says Eula Biss in the Believer, “but they are also conceptual. The word gang is frequently used to avoid using the word black in a way that might be offensive. For instance, by pairing it with a suggestion of fear.”
Biss describes her own experience living in my old neighborhood, an extremely diverse and densely populated spot as tense as it is vibrant. She writes eloquently about the thought patterns involved with trying to resist our assumptions about people:
One evening not long after we moved to Rogers Park, my husband and I met a group of black boys riding their bikes on the sidewalk across the street from our apartment building. The boys were weaving down the sidewalk, yelling for the sake of hearing their own voices, and drinking from forty-ounce bottles of beer. As we stepped off the sidewalk and began crossing the street toward our apartment, one boy yelled, “Don’t be afraid of us!” I looked back over my shoulder as I stepped into the street and the boy passed on his bike so that I saw him looking back at me also, and then he yelled again, directly at me, “Don’t be afraid of us!”
I wanted to yell back, “Don’t worry, we aren’t!” but I was, in fact, afraid to engage the boys, afraid to draw attention to my husband and myself, afraid of how my claim not to be afraid might be misunderstood as bravado begging a challenge, so I simply let my eyes meet the boy’s eyes before I turned, disturbed, toward the tall iron gate in front of my apartment building, a gate that gives the appearance of being locked but is in fact always open.
It’s a thoughtful essay, one that asks tough questions about a difficult subject without condemning anyone. It’s also noteworthy for its framing device: a provocative reading of Little House on the Prairie as a deeply ambivalent take on American pioneerism—an ambivalence echoed by Biss and by many who share her position as a privileged settler in a troubled urban frontier.